Understanding David Deutsch’s book The Beginning of Infinity will not only provide you with the best explanation (we have so far) of epistemology (theory of knowledge), but it will also provide you with a lens through which to view the world.
Deutsch provides us with a worldview that is extremely valuable in understanding the truth, which of course, should be the guiding principle when it comes to figuring out reality.
Some would even view Deutsch’s book as “self-help” since it can help you realize your unique ability to explain, be creative, spread ideas, criticize theories, and think for yourself. If nothing else, you will walk away a more optimistic and positive individual after reading the book.
But beyond providing you with this worldview, Deutsch’s book is a window into understanding human creativity and the differences in culture that exist across societies. In fact, the book can also help in everyday affairs such as running your business or your life for that matter.
Now that I’ve provided you with a sufficient overview of the book, let’s dive into the crux of Deutsch’s theory of knowledge.
The centerpiece argument of Deutsch’s book focuses on good explanations. You may be wondering: what’s so special about good explanations? I’ll attempt to answer that and lay out Deutsch’s theory in three parts.
PART 1: WHY ARE GOOD EXPLANATIONS IMPORTANT?
Good explanations drive the world and allow us to make progress in society. Have you thought about how it is that we understand the world, reality, and truth? It is by coming up with explanations. The initial explanations we come up with do not have to be accurate. In fact, they rarely are. But that’s fine, because these explanations are then subject to criticism and undergo a process of error-correction, until we land upon the best explanation we have so far (of whatever we are trying to understand). In this manner, good explanations can also help us solve problems.
It is important to note that the explanations we land upon are not absolute truths. Anyone could come up with a better explanation that could debunk and falsify the existing explanation in place. Why is there no way of converging on an “absolute truth”?
Because humans are fallible. We make mistakes. Indeed, progress comes with mistakes. If we are not making mistakes, it could be a sign that we are going into stasis and that’s a scary place to be. But making mistakes is okay, because we can always strive to correct errors in our thinking and improve upon explanations. However, we cannot say with certainty that we have landed on the absolute truth precisely because we make errors. In fact, Deutsch lays out how even mathematics (which is typically considered the gold standard for absolute truth) can be falsified.
Because of this error-correcting mechanism and because problems lead to more problems, we are always improving upon our explanations. Deutsch makes a beautiful point when he says that science should be viewed as moving from one problem to another problem – this could remove us from thinking of explanations as absolute truths. This also implies something worth thinking about and pausing at: We are always at the beginning of infinite progress to be made! (Hence, the name of the book)
PART 2: WHAT EVEN ARE GOOD EXPLANATIONS?
Okay, so I just went on this rant about why good explanations are important and how they drive progress in society. But what does Deutsch even mean by good explanations? Note that I’ve been using the phrase “good explanations” as opposed to simply “explanations.” I’ll state the obvious again which I discussed above already: It is, of course, possible to come up with bad explanations. Most of us are perhaps doing that on an everyday basis. But then, we error-correct to find good explanations from our bad explanations. How does one differentiate between a good and a bad explanation?
Good explanations are hard to vary, are testable, and falsifiable. Good explanations are also acts of creativity (they do not typically come from feeding in your questions into Google). Naval and Brett do a better job explaining good explanations than I would, so please read here and here. Of course, you could pick up Deutsch’s book itself 🙂
PART 3: WHERE DO GOOD EXPLANATIONS COME FROM?
Firstly, it’s important to note that humans are unique in their ability to come up with explanations. All other animals are restricted to the information and explanations that reside in their genes. This is not trying to put other animals down, but rather showing how and why humans have contributed to all this progress in the world.
Explanations come from conjecture. They are bold guesses. Popular belief states that our theories and explanations come from observation and experience, but Karl Popper and Deutsch show how that cannot be. Explanations come from conjectures and they could come from any human. It is not the case that good explanations come from experts in the field or some form of authority figure.
Explanations are acts of human creativity. Even though we do not yet have a good explanation of where creativity comes from, it is what has enabled us to solve problems through conjecture and explanations, spread ideas and make progress. There is no limit to human creativity. Problems lead to more problems, and require human acts of creativity to be solved. Even though all problems are soluble, problems are also inevitable and we can solve them using acts of creativity. Which is to say that we can solve problems by coming up with good explanations.
SUMMARY AND WHAT’S TO COME:
We understand the world through explanations. Explanations come from conjecture and are acts of human creativity. Explanations are subject to criticism and undergo a process of error-correction and this is the process by which we land upon good explanations. Good explanations are hard to vary, testable, and falsifiable. However, these good explanations cannot be treated as absolute truths since humans are fallible. Explanations help us solve problems, but problems always lead to more problems, but also more progress to come. As a result, we are always at the beginning of infinity – of infinite knowledge and infinite progress.
There is a scenario where we don’t let infinite knowledge creation play out. It’s a scenario where we fall into stasis and are not optimistic and rational. Humans make choices and we can choose whether to fall into stasis or let infinite progress play out. Choosing infinite progress almost inherently requires an optimistic mindset and view of the future, and Deutsch delves into that.
Perhaps my most favorite parts of his book are his writings on optimism, dynamic societies, and the spread of ideas. I’ll write about that next time, so stay tuned! Until then, hope this post gets you pondering on good explanations and their transformative power.